Drive-Thru Inclusion in the Time of COVID.

Our community is in transition. Inclusion looks different than it did just months ago.

It is mid-July, and it has been hot and dry here in Denver. For weeks now, the sun has kissed the thermometer sending it to near 100 degrees. Protests against police brutality and Black Lives Matter can be heard down the street from us. A camp of individuals who experience homelessness cropped up at the Governor’s mansion just down the road. For a week just after the sunset, they collected pots and pans, grabbed a bullhorn and shouted, making noise as they banged their way up the one way street near our home begging for answers and solutions to their homelessness and decrying the mistreatment of people of color by certain police personnel.

Each day, Mikelle and I sip our morning coffee listening to the morning news as it blares out daily bulletins about a steady increase in cases of COVID-19 across the country.

People are scared and angry. Questions are more prevalent than raindrops. Do schools open next month? Is it safe? Who knows?

After the initial peak in April and May, Colorado appears to have contained the virus to a degree. Recent reports of tourists traversing our state from nearby COVID hotspots have led to a slight increase. The Governor has put a 10 PM curfew on bars and restaurants.

How are we coping? Reasonably well.

We hold on to the fragments of what we once knew as normal. Now, the community for Mikelle can be experienced in one of the many small parks which dot the city. Peaceful, quiet, and not too many people. Just the opposite of what she used to enjoy. A big adventure is to the foothills near a mountain stream nestled in a pine forest, and again no one is around. Strange, how we now consider isolation a good thing. 

In this time of COVID, there are no more trips to Mikelle’s grocery store and bank. No more cozy afternoons at Mikelle’s favorite hangout…the coffee shop. For thirty-plus years, Mikelle she experienced the rich territory of her urban kingdom.

In Mikelle’s mind, she rules this neighborhood. After all, she is a bit of a neighborhood celebrity. Everyone knows Mikelle or has seen her navigating our community as she barrels down uneven red flagstone sidewalks and darts down freshly paved alleyways toward her destination. Mikelle’s elixir of life is coffee and community, preferably served up together. 

Every week Mikelle asks when she can go back to the grocery store and resume shopping. She misses the clerks calling to her, “Hey, girl!” as she passes through the aisles. Mikelle thrives from all the attention of her regular friends at the store.  She still doesn’t comprehend that two of her favorite clerks, who knew her from middle school, died from COVID.

For years, Mikelle’s bracelet business was built on conferences and coffee shops. Neither are available to her these days. Capital Hill coffee shops were Mikelle’s pop-up markets for years and have been the backbone of her business. She’d bolt through the door, the tires of her wheelchair gripping the floors as she squealed delightfully, announcing her presence. Once at the counter, she giggled with baristas as she ordered her favorite drink.  

As part of her conversation, Mikelle introduced me or one of her support team members as accessories to her life.  With coffee in hand or in Mikelle’s case on the wheelchair tray, then set up shop at the best open table in the place. Mikelle sized up the crowd eyeing a likely customer or two, and prepared to sell her bracelets as she took them from her purse and displayed them on her tray and table. Of course, as she passed through the aisles, most customers had  seen the big elegantly drawn poster on the back of her chair, saying “Ask me about my bracelets.” 

She’d nudge one of her ladies or me to start passing out podcast postcards and business cards with her website info to customers. She’d cast a nod to them, hold up a bracelet, motioning them to come to visit her. The bragging began as she tapped on her iPad just how trendy she is as a podcaster. Funny how a business card and postcard changed fellow coffee drinkers from skeptics to converts. Oh, the power of Mikelle’s persuasion.  

When COVID crept into Colorado, we adapted like most choosing to “stay safer at home.” Mikelle wanted to get out of her condo, but we had to do it safely. After much discussion, she settled for a “near-normal” drive-thru routine at Starbucks to pick me up a coffee each day. Instead of being known for her winning, although currently gap-tooth smile, Mikelle is known as the evergreen colored van with the dent in the side that shows up daily. Interaction with baristas is limited.  They are masked and pass drinks to drivers on a tray maintaining six feet of social distancing. Instead of long interactions, jokes, and giggles, the goal is to move on quickly–even eye contact is minimal these days.

The bank tellers at our local First Bank have known Mikelle since she was a teenager. Mikelle grew accustomed to the welcoming hugs as they sprang up from their posts at the counter to give Mikelle a big hug when she showed up to grab a twenty-dollar bill from her account. Her megawatt smile always brightened their day. Mikelle’s favorite tellers inquired what she had been up to lately. They listened to her digital stories echo through the bank from her iPad. For years, many of the tellers purchased a bracelet or two as gifts for co-workers or for themselves. When a teller moved on to another branch, they’d write their phone number on a business card and give it to Mikelle and declare, “You had better call me so we can meet for coffee!”

Now, Mikelle’s trips to the bank for her precious cash are at the drive-thru where she can talk to the teller through a camera that she can’t see from the back of the van. Her money finds its way to her waiting wallet from the capsule swishing through the vacuum tube. She still gets a “hello”,  but it isn’t the same.

June had been a time of celebration and reunion with family, friends, and former support team members to celebrate Mikelle’s birthday.

For over twenty-five years, we have celebrated in Cheeseman Park on a Sunday afternoon. Many of the same people show up, some friends coming for sixteen years or more. There we’d picnic, swap stories, and celebrate our shining beautiful lady.

This year’s celebration was still outdoors, where it is safer, but at a smaller park and for a shorter time. Friends and family sat six feet apart and were masked and uncertain. The party tried to be normal but with no hugs, it was missing the best part. 

I hired a cellist to set up a more elegant atmosphere for the gathering. He played classical music. It was lovely, considering the space and time we currently live in. Once again, Mikelle adapted to the “near normal” birthday. 

The last several summers always included a few trips to “Film on the Rocks” at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Mikelle always got the first row nearest the stage, where once again, she was treated like royalty by concert staff. Mikelle had grown to enjoy live music at Levitts Pavillion, in part because the concerts started early enough for her taste and typically there were just enough people for her not to get lost in the crowd. It was not unusual for a fellow concert goer to go home with a new bracelet as Mikelle went home with some fresh cash.

Mikelle’s community was ripe with friendships and new business opportunities. 

At first, I thought we could all handle a few months of social distancing and drive-thru inclusion without much impact on our lives. Now I realize this way of life could be longterm in the time of COVID. I wish people were as diligent as Mikelle in wearing masks, but they just aren’t.  

Technology is excellent, but it doesn’t build inclusion in the same way a hug and a smile can do.

I heard the crickets the other night, a sure sign summer has peaked, and autumn is approaching. We have coped with COVID this spring and summer in large part because of the beauty and warmth of the seasons. 

I worry about when the snow blows and the wind howls, just how we will create meaningful inclusion for Mikelle.

One thing I know is that even in this turbulent time–drive-thru inclusion can not be a long term solution.

 It is time to re-think what inclusion truly means in the time of COVID and how we accomplish it.